Book Review: Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangzi by Peter Harmsen

The Battle of Shanghai is oddly one of the best documented, but also least remembered battles from the period before America’s entry into World War II. Peter Harmsen, in Shanghai 1937: Stalingrad on the Yangzi, seeks to makes use of the former to rectify the latter. Mr. Harmsen made use of a wide variety of sources, including from the Chinese and Japanese combatants, as well as from third-party observers in the International Settlement. The result is a nuanced and complex view of the horror of total war in one of the world’s most populous metropolises. Harmsen does a great job moving from the politics at the top to the fighting man at the bottom. He builds a steady narrative that takes us through the battle as it develops. Of particular interest to me was the fact that Shanghai was a battle of Chinese choosing. In the wake of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, Japanese armies swiftly occupied much of northeast China. Chiang Kaishek wanted to make a stand where his troops would have a tactical advantage. Given the Japanese superiority in tanks, aircraft, and artillery, urban combat in Shanghai gave his troops the best chance of success. Later, as the Japanese were clearly winning the battle, Chiang kept his troops in combat to try to generate sympathy on the global stage. One of the things I really appreciated about Harmsen’s narrative is his demonstration of the brutality on both sides; the radicalization of the Japanese as they executed prisoners in gruesome ways and the Chinese, often civilians, that took brutal revenge when the opportunity presented itself. It is a grim picture of modern war. Shanghai 1937 will give the reader a new perspective on World War II in Asia and the Pacific. The text is accompanied by a good number of photographs and maps.

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